DSO.com has an in-depth look at a dispute I first mentioned last week between Green Hills and Express Logic over whether Green Hills can reverse-engineer Express Logic’s API in order to build compatible products. I’m pleased to see that Jason Schultz’s take on the subject is about the same as mine:
On June 12 Express Logic accused Green Hills Software, Santa Barbara, Calif., a licensed reseller of Express Logic’s software, of illegally copying its ThreadX API. The API is a piece of the RTOS that defines the interface between the OS and the programs a customer will build on top of it. Express Logic also claims that Green Hills then used the illegal copy to create an API in its micro-velOSity RTOS. Green Hills has publicly denied all of Express Logic’s charges. The dispute will be adjudicated by a professional arbitrator . “What’s at stake here,” says Jason Schultz , a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in San Francisco , “is a long-time tradition of computer programming–the tradition of interoperability.”
Express Logic’s position strikes me as rather weak:
“If it turns out we’re wrong and that you can, in fact, copy an API without infringing on a copyholder’s copyright, then that opens the door to a lot of other things,” says John Carbone, vice president of marketing at Express Logic, San Diego, Calif . “For example, what other portions of the source code can you copy? Data structures? The comments? The functions? The user manual? That’s dangerous–it’s a slippery slope. Basically, [such a ruling] would make everybody’s API open source. The API would no longer be a distinguishing factor.”
Well yeah, you don’t want a product’s API to be its “distinguishing factor,” any more than you would want railroads to run their trains on different-guage rails. The courts don’t seem to have had any difficulty drawing the relevant distinctions between a program’s interfaces and its source code. There’s little reason to think this case is different.